American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

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Good Fortune and Perseverance

by Daniel B. Frye

Daniel B. FryeFrom the Editor: Daniel Frye has held a variety of positions, beginning as a Social Security Insurance specialist and later as the national advocate responsible for coordinating the legislative and political agenda of the Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand. Back in the US, he edited the Braille Monitor, managed the federal Randolph-Sheppard Program, and served as executive director of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Vision Impaired. He has now returned to the Federation as Director of Employment and Professional Development Programs. 

Previous generations in the blind community blazed the way for blind job-seekers today. Thanks to their efforts, prospects for blind job-seekers may be better today than they were a few generations ago. Nevertheless, anecdotes and statistics continue to demonstrate that blind people still find identifying, training for, and securing a job to be among our greatest challenges. Despite the century-long history of the Federal Vocational Rehabilitation program, enhancements in multiple types of access technology that are increasingly available to blind people, and the availability of training in blindness skills, obstacles continue to limit our ability to find that critical first job.

Work is all-important. It provides us with shelter, sustenance, self-confidence, and security. Without work, blind people may struggle to meet their most basic needs, forced to depend upon family members and/or public assistance programs. Why, I ask myself, is it so hard for blind people to find employment? As I ponder this question, I look back over the struggles and opportunities that have shaped my own life.

Early Years

I was born into a lower-middle-class family of four. My father worked as a police officer, and my mother was a secretary for the railroad. I was the older of two children, and I was legally blind from birth. My sister, Debbie, was two years my junior, and she had no diagnosed disabilities.

Prior to my birth, my parents had no knowledge of how to educate and train a blind child so that they could grow up to be a competent, self-sufficient human being. They assumed that I should be expected to manage independently, perform my share of household chores, and get along at school and in other social situations. To help me reach those goals, they relied on their intuition and basic common sense.

Like most families dealing with the issue of blindness for the first time, my parents listened to the first experts on the subject they could find. I don't know how they reached their decision, but I started my formal education at the Texas School for the Blind (TSB) in Austin, Texas. I lived and learned on campus for the first three years of my education. After that the school principal, Ms. Ford, encouraged my parents to have me mainstreamed. She based this decision on her assessment that I had been equipped with the core blindness skills that I required. She concluded that I was likely to follow an academic track that would be better provided in a public school setting.

The shift was made, and I started fourth grade in Georgetown, Texas. For the first time my younger sister and I attended elementary school together—separated, of course, by our grade levels. We walked (or sometimes ran) down the hill together to catch the 7:15 a.m. bus to school. I felt like a normal kid, and I was excited by the prospect of this new adventure.

I was a child with significant residual vision. Consistent with "best practices" of the day, TSB encouraged me to rely on my remaining sight. At Georgetown Elementary School my teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) continued to instill in me the idea that I should use the vision I had in order to get along. These educators knew that my vision would deteriorate in the future, but they made no effort to teach me the nonvisual techniques I would someday need.

I remember learning how to read the word the in a large-print reading primer at TSB. I remember thinking that reading was going to be a real chore moving forward. Concurring with the professionals at TSB, my TVI at Georgetown prepared my weekly lessons in incredibly large print. She made no arrangement for me to receive orientation and mobility (O&M) instruction, assuming that travel would be safe for me, in daylight at least, relying on my vision. I was excused from (or denied) the opportunity to take gym with my public school classmates, out of an abundance of caution.

My parents understood my growing concern about not being permitted to learn Braille or to use a cane at school. However, they encouraged me to remain patient and accept the conclusions of the blindness professionals.

Shattering Changes

In October 1978 my mother died tragically in a car accident. Then, in July 1980, my father suffered a fatal heart attack. At the age of twelve, I was an orphan.

The aunts and uncles concerned with our welfare determined that my sister and I should live with our paternal grandparents in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Our grandparents were sharecroppers on a one-acre tobacco farm near the town of Nichols. They worked for the landlord who owned the property and their shotgun-style house.

Like my parents, my grandparents wanted the best for me. With their fourth-grade educations, however, they were even more easily manipulated than my parents were by the blindness professionals. Unanimously the professionals believed I should be sent three hundred miles north to Spartanburg to attend the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind (SCSDB).

By now, at twelve, I had enough experience under my belt to know that I did not want to go to another residential school. I argued vehemently with my grandparents that I should be allowed to attend the local public school. I had demonstrated my ability to function in public school in Texas for the past three years. I pointed out that my younger sister's mental health might suffer if we were separated after the loss of our parents. I explained that most schools for the blind could not provide a solid academic education. (This academic gap became apparent when, in eighth grade, I brought my earth science textbook home over the weekend and discovered that my sister, two grades behind me, was learning material that had not yet been introduced to me at SCSDB.)

My efforts at self-advocacy notwithstanding, I was sent to SCSDB for my junior high and high school education.

The School in Spartanburg

Sometimes when you resist going somewhere that you think will not be in your best interest, you may have a pleasant surprise. I met people at SCSDB who introduced me to the blindness consumer movement. They challenged my grandparents' low expectations for what I might achieve in life. I met mentors who shared my perspective on blindness. They were in a position to help me advocate for myself, supporting me to receive better instruction in the skills I needed. At SCSDB I found affirming people who believed in me and in the capacity of blind people. They encouraged me to interact with experienced consumers of blindness-specific public education and the vocational rehabilitation system, a federal/state partnership that could support me in my vocational goal of becoming an attorney.

When I arrived at SCSDB, I asked to be taught to read Braille. Though some of the staff had reservations about my need for this instruction, I insisted, and finally I was taught to read Braille. Because I didn't learn the code until I was twelve or thirteen, I have never become a fully fluent Braille reader. Nevertheless, I felt an incredible sense of liberation when I could enter the library at SCSDB and peruse the books on the shelves, finding something that I might enjoy reading for pleasure. I read as voraciously as I could, and my Braille competency gradually increased. As I moved into my high school years, Braille was a lifesaver in my advanced mathematics and science courses.

I also received lessons in O&M. I realized that, with a cane and some confidence, I would be able to travel safely and independently anywhere I wanted to go.

Most important of all was the benefit I realized from being introduced to members of the South Carolina affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). These incredibly kind and generous people talked with me for hours. They helped me shed my conviction that, as a blind person, my opportunities would always be limited. It took a lot of work to undo the harmful perspective that had been ingrained in me, primarily by my grandparents. Eventually I was able to adopt a different mindset about my ability and my future.

My grandparents became increasingly hostile to what I was learning at SCSDB. They were emotionally abusive to me when I went home to visit, excluding me from the activities of family life. Finally I asked my dearest adult mentor to help me become emancipated from my grandparents' custody. My mentor assisted me to secure a five-day-a-week job as the afternoon switchboard operator at SCSDB. The job allowed me to earn some money to help me remain in Spartanburg when school was not in session.

My mentor also sponsored me for a pilot program through which I became one of the first SCSDB students to enroll at a local high school. This program allowed blind students with academic ability to attend public school while receiving the necessary blindness supports from one of several SCSDB teachers. We were allowed to stay in the SCSDB dormitories in the evening while attending public school during the day.

Growing in the Federation

Supported by the leadership of the South Carolina NFB affiliate, I became the first president of the first Junior Chapter of the NFB, located on the SCSDB campus. This election introduced me to service on the affiliate board of directors. At that time in South Carolina, the presidents of each chapter served as members of the State Board.

Engaged in the NFB at this level, I participated in my first March on Washington (now our Washington Seminar) when I was sixteen years old. In Washington I helped to articulate our legislative priorities to our congressional representatives. Since I had no family to teach me how to be an adult, blind mentors helped me figure out how to eat in fancy restaurants, interact in hotel settings, and manage far more other tasks than I can list here. 

Though I was still missing many social and practical skills, my postsecondary years were fairly standard for an ambitious young man. I attended Erskine College, a small, private, liberal arts college in Upcountry South Carolina. After college I entered the University of Washington School of Law, a small graduate school within a huge university system. I was elected to the Erskine Student Senate and later to the Judicial Council, followed by service as the first-year representative to the Student Bar Association.

Meeting the Challenges

Despite these accomplishments, however, I still struggled due to my deficiencies in nonvisual skills. I recorded lectures in class; back at the dorm I listened to the lectures again and took notes with my manual Perkins Braillewriter. It was a slow, inefficient process.

College and law school saw me starting to live on my own, first in a dormitory and later in my own apartment in graduate housing. Other deficiencies began to emerge. I had not been taught many daily living skills by my family and/or the schools I had attended. I spoke with leaders in the National Student Division and learned some of the supervisory skills I needed to manage and gain the maximum benefit from using a human reader. Finding good readers is a low-tech solution, but one that enables a blind person to manage certain written or printed tasks efficiently.

Still, I needed to hone other skills. Once again, some truly loving Federationists noticed my struggles and arranged discretely to have me over to their home. Graciously they taught me the nonvisual strategies I needed to manage most aspects of independent living and home management. These unforgettable gestures of good will were the norm, not the exception, of what a blind person could expect from quiet but genuine champions of our movement. I will be forever grateful for the compassionate mentoring I received from my Federation colleagues. It would have made sense for me to take nine months and attend one of our Federation training centers, but life simply did not present me with this opportunity. The quiet aid offered to me by generous and experienced blind people equipped me with the skills and confidence I needed in order to succeed.

Even with my law degree and my solid blindness skills, I endured three relentless years of unemployment after I completed my formal education. My experience highlights the reality that nearly all of us, even those of us who are most highly qualified, still may experience periods of isolation and discrimination. At such times support from family, friends, and the blind community are vital.

What Blind Job-seekers Need

What should blind job candidates possess in order to acquire a job? If any silver-bullet solution existed, I suspect that we all would have shared it by now, and our unemployment rate would more closely resemble that of the nation as a whole. I can only offer my own homespun answer to this age-old query.

First of all, blind candidates must be fully credentialed and must be knowledgeable about all aspects of the career position for which they are applying. Even prior to acquiring academic or trade-school competencies, potential job-seekers will need, first and foremost, to be effective self-advocates. Candidates will need to possess deep-seated levels of self-confidence about their capacity to live, work, and play well as blind persons. A job candidate will need to know how to coordinate their advocacy skills and their internalized belief about the inherent ability of blind people to be competent.

In addition, job candidates will need to have mastered nonvisual blindness skills so they can be efficient in their daily routines. They must be able to select appropriate attire; prepare a breakfast or pack a lunch for later; manage travel to work; use access technology to check the time, produce documents, and engage in personal and professional communications; and much more.

If one hasn't acquired these skills while growing up, they most easily can be gained through immersion training. Such training may be especially valuable for anyone who is experiencing recent vision loss. Likewise, it can be critically important for a person who has been totally blind throughout life but has never been encouraged to manage most aspects of living independently. I have incorporated these critical independence skills into programs I have directed at several blindness-specific vocational rehabilitation agencies. These programs have been especially important for consumers who, for any number of reasons, could not or did not wish to stay away from their homes and communities for months at a time.

Many of the Federation's existing programs related to employment and career mentoring/readiness offer some of the important skills needed to help blind candidates find work consistent with their inclinations and aptitudes. Working closely with our organizational leadership, I aspire to develop a truly robust national program that can be trusted by entities involved with preparing blind people to enter the workforce. Such entities could know with a level of certainty that the training being offered has been vetted by blind people who are authentically living their lives. They can know that this training is backed by an organization of blind people who have crystallized a time-tested philosophy of living successfully as a blind person.

My evolution as a blind person has been the product of a deeply caring Federation family. Many others will experience this same truth through the tough training that leads to independence. If the Federation is to lead in meeting the challenges around the employment of blind people, attention to the traits and areas of training referenced here may be the best way forward. By working together we can ignite the spark that will help many more blind people turn their dreams into reality.

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